Explaining the strange-but-true tales behind three famous sea monsters

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Apr 11, 2018, 1:30 PM EDT

What makes a monster a monster?

The word "monster" originates in the Latin verb monere, which means, "to warn." So humans' earliest ideas of monsters were of various, creepy apparitions, the sight of which was thought to be a bad omen, or a sign of danger lying ahead. Fast forward thousands of years to our pop culture usage and the monster's warning call is often just seconds before the typically not-too-friendly behemoth lunges at our hapless hero. The humans either fight or run.

(Of course "good" monsters have also been known to battle "bad" monsters, and an entire delightful sub-genre is dedicated to such throw-downs.)


But, the original idea behind "monsters" was more of a slow-burn fear. Like, "dammit, that Cyclops does not bode well." or "I wish I hadn't seen what I just saw because it's going to be a Zero Crops Autumn here in [insert your favorite early agricultural society] pretty soon."

When it comes to sea monsters, though, more than a bit of that sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop still persists, if only because it's so darn hard to find or see these wily beasts in those great expanses of water we call "71 percent of Earth." But also, possibly due to the mysterious nature of the seas and oceans themselves, the funny thing about sea monsters is: a bunch of them are kinda real.

Now, before you get too hopeful about meeting this guy IRL...


... unfortunately, merpeople are not high on the list of fantasy sea creatures whose real-world analogs look very similar. They do have one, but it's much harder to imagine Sally Hawkins making out with it in her underwater apartment bathroom.

Also, before we get much further, much of what we're about to discuss was inspired or informed by marine author and artist Richard Ellis' thrilling and chilling book on the subject, Monsters of the Sea. It is as deep (yet fun) as the ocean itself, and should be devoured like a Leviathan eating a ship. Another great resource was the exhibit on Mythic Creatures at the American Museum of Natural History several years ago.

Okay, now back to merpeople. Now, while I'd personally like to believe that not only are mermaids and mermen real, but that I could somehow convince a sea witch to turn me into one, science doesn't give us much hope on either front. Instead, the closest science comes to a real-life analog for this...

Hugo (2011)

Credit: Paramount Pictures 

... is manatees.

Yep, manatees.

Now, if you're like me, these adorable critters are adorable in an entirely different way than, say, the mermaids at the Coney Island Mermaid Parade or Abe Sapien (yes, Abe Sapien does look very much like The Shape of Water's creature but no, they don't both exist in a Hellboy Cinematic Universe). So, what gives with the connection between manatees and merfolk?

The answer seems to be a sort of wishful-thinking effect. People, especially sailors at sea, really wanted to see beautiful women (for instance) sunning themselves on a rock, or swimming through the ocean, so they saw whatever could approximate that (a manatee seems closest) and called it a mermaid, or a merman, or one of the many, many names for sea-people the world over.

Of course, sometimes mermaid-sightings were indeed a bad omen. Though the sirens in Homer's Odyssey whose singing lured sailors to their deaths were actually half-bird, somehow the two myths intermingled to such a degree that "sirens" became almost synonymous with mermaids. Indeed, the word for "mermaid" in some languages is a variation on "siren". As is, to bring this ship full circle, the scientific name for the mammalian order that the manatee species belongs to, Sirenia.

According to Ellis, the first recorded instance of a half-fish/half-human was in the year 5,000 B.C., when ancient Babylonians wrote of their god Oannes, whose upper body was that of a man, with the tail of a fish. It was, of course, common for many ancient civilizations to worship gods with a mix of human and animal attributes, but there is a small, totally unscientific part of me (that grew up loving Splash, so take this with a grain of salt-water), that wonders if there was at least something a little more human-like than a manatee swimming about 7,000 years ago...

Which brings us to Nessie.


While not technically a "sea" monster — she's thought to live in a lake (aka a loch) after all — Scotland's own Loch Ness Monster is perhaps the most famed modern-day take on the age-old idea of a sea serpent. (How many mythical sea serpents have their own gift shop and roller coaster to this day? Not bad for a freshwater monster.)

The briefest run-down of Nessie history begins in the year 565 with the account of St. Columba, an Irish saint who, while in Scotland, claimed to see a watery beastie attempt to attack a man who was swimming across Loch Ness to fetch Columba's boat. Columba made the sign of the cross in the air and willed the creature away from the man, and thus the first seed of the Nessie legend was planted. (Some also connect Nessie to stone carvings of unidentifiable flippered beasts made by a first century AD Scottish tribe commonly known as the Picts. And Nessie is herself one of many freshwater creatures in Scottish lore, sometimes referred to as water-kelpies.)

Things didn't really take off for Nessie believers, though, 'til 1933, when a new road was built to the loch, increasing visits there and, thereby, views of the lake. What followed were increased sightings, a full-on monster hunt, hoax footprints made with a hippopotamus's foot, and, of course, the "surgeon's photograph" glimpsed above, which in the 1990s was revealed to be a hoax perpetrated with a wooden head and neck atop a toy submarine. (Though not everyone believes that debunking either.)

Okay, but let's get to what's real. Many Nessie believers, due to the way the creature has been described by those who've claimed to see her, think of the Loch Ness Monster as a dinosaur, or a group of dinosaurs, that somehow survived in Loch Ness post-millions of years of extinction across the rest of the planet. The most common candidate cited is often the Elasmosaurus, a supremely long-necked aquatic dino that went extinct roughly 65 million years ago.

monsters, Elasmosaurus

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Now it's very hard to imagine a dinosaur, or even a group of dinos, staying alive in one particular lake 65 million years past the extinction of all the rest of their fellow -saurs. But the story of the coelacanth gives true believers hope.

The coelacanth gives Nessie lovers, and all monster hunters and cryptozoologists, hope because, until one was found off the coast of South Africa in 1938 (what's with monsters and the 1930s?) it was thought to have been extinct for, wait for it... 65 million years. It was right there underwater all this time. So if some people want to keep asking, "What else could be down there?" well, what the heck, why not?

And now we come to the most real sea monster of them all. This one is so real, it basically just got a new name and people realized it wasn't as dangerous as they thought, so they chilled out about it.

I mean, of course, the Kraken.


Above, we see a modern imagining (from Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) of the infamous sea monster known as the Kraken. As depicted here, it's a multi-tentacled, ginormous monster with some kind of desire to attack ships (who knows if it wants to eat it or if it's just plain mean?), and it attempts to drag said ships down into the briny deep. That was pretty much the common sailor's idea of the Kraken and other such tentacled sea monsters for generations. And the thing is, they were actually two-thirds right.

There are multi-tentacled creatures out there, and they can be quite terrifyingly huge. A giant squid can reach up to 43 feet in length, and the rarer colossal squid can grow up to 46 feet (both roughly taller than a four-story building). Of course, squids don't rear up out of the water at full height like that, as some sailors imagined they could, and they don't plot ways to drag ships to the bottom of the sea. And, perhaps most importantly, they aren't encountered too often due to their being deep sea-dwellers. But if you had no foreknowledge of giant squid and you encountered a 16-foot tentacle, even a friendly one, would you wait around to ask it if it only ate fish or not?

Thus: a monster was born.


As Ellis pointed out in Monsters of the Sea, "Many monsters disappeared into the mists of legend, but others persevered, taking their place among the scientifically authenticated inhabitants of the world's oceans." Then as we came to understand them better, they became not Leviathan, but whales, not "devilfish," but manta rays. Even the ones that are truly dangerous still, like great white sharks, are no longer monsters, but really, really big fish.

So, what's the warning these monsters can give to us from the depths of our ancient past? Maybe it's that the things that are on Earth are pretty freaking wondrous, and we need to keep them around?

As for whether the Whale-Wolf will ever be authenticated... that's a debate for another time.